Tentative Reflections on Online Teaching

It can work well in some circumstances, but so far does not seem like an adequate substitute for conventional classroom instruction for large classes.


Like most academics, I have had to teach and lecture online this semester, as virtually all universities have suspended in-class instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic. I have not been teaching classes regularly, as I am serving as a visiting scholar at the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, this spring. But I have done three guest lectures in classes at George Mason University (my home institution) and at Georgetown University Law Center. Two using Zoom, and one Webex. I have also done a number of Zoom and Webex seminars, conference calls and the like. In previous years, I have at times led online seminars, and given guest lectures online at both university and high school classes.

This post offers a few tentative observations on online teaching, based on my experience this semester and (on some points) earlier. I think online instruction has real value in some settings. But I am far less optimistic about it than enthusiasts like co-blogger Josh Blackman—at least not when it comes to large interactive classes.

1. Online teaching works well for small seminars and discussion groups, especially if everyone is motivated and prepared. If there are 10-12 people or fewer, it's fairly easy to keep track of everyone, make eye contact, and have about 90% as good an interaction as in person. I found this to be true when I taught an online class on the politics of science fiction for Learn Liberty in 2018, and I hear similar things from professors teaching small seminars online now. Just a couple weeks ago, I participated in a small-group online seminar about another academic's book manuscript, and it worked very well, in my judgment.

2. By contrast, things are much tougher with a large class. In the latter scenario, it's hard to gauge how more than a small fraction of the audience is reacting to you, and also hard to manage a discussion. Effective instruction (and effective public speaking generally) often depends on maintaining eye contact with the audience, and being able to gauge how well they are absorbing what you have to say. That is extraordinarily difficult—often impossible—when you can only see a fraction of the class at a time.

3. As a guest lecturer, I was doing a lecture followed by questions approach, which makes things easier. Even so, lack of eye contact with most of the audience made it hard to gauge things. And managing the questions was harder than it would be in a classroom.

4. Students also have more trouble interacting with each other when they can't see more than a small fraction of classmates at once. That, too, is an impediment to effective discussion.

5. As Josh Blackman points out, online instruction using Zoom and other similar platforms requires a good deal of "multitasking" by the professor (and, I would add, some by the students, as well). Multitasking is the enemy of effective pedagogy. When people are learning difficult new material, they are likely to do better if they can focus on one thing at a time, and don't have to simultaneously deal with various tech issues. Similarly, instructors do better when they don't have multitask either, but can instead focus as exclusively as possible on conveying information to students and—when necessary- facilitating class discussion.

6. Some of these problems will be diminished as people get more used to the system. Others can be mitigated by technological innovation. Eventually, we might have Star Trek Holodeck-like technology which makes "virtual" interaction almost the same as meeting in realspace. I also recognize that online teaching may be more effective in future semesters when students and faculty have more time to prepare for it.

And, obviously, the quality of the experience right now is necessarily diminished by the fact that so many faculty and students are anxious and worried about the coronavirus crisis, and some have friends and relatives who have gotten sick themselves or lost jobs and income as a result of the accompanying economic crisis. In that respect, the current semester is not a completely fair test of the potential of online instruction.

7. For now, though, my general impression is that Zoom, Webex, and other similar fora are clearly inferior to in-person classes for large groups, and likely to remain so for some time to come, barring major breakthroughs in technology and/or teaching techniques.

8. It is important to recognize that on-line teaching for large groups can work better if the instructor is in one place and all or most of the students are in a single other location. The former can then easily see all of the latter at once, gauge their reactions, and call on people almost the same way as if they were all in the same location. That can work well, and I have made it work as a guest speaker in a number of classes (both high school and university level) in pre-Coronavirus days.

This approach isn't feasible in the current environment. It can, however, make it easier for classes to have valuable guest-speakers from other parts of the country and the world during "normal" times. Your school may not have the funds to invite big-name Professor X to fly out to visit your class in person; even if the money is available, X may not be willing to take the time. On the other hand, he or she might well be able to spare an hour or two to give a talk and answer questions using Skype, Zoom, or Webex. That can be done at a fraction of the cost in time and money, and it could be a very valuable experience for your students. A few instructors already take advantage of such opportunities. More should be aware of this option and start using it!

Online teaching enthusiasts can denounce me as a technophobe, or an old fogey.  But I am actually a techno-optimist, on the whole—the son of two tech industry professionals. We are, I believe, privileged to live in a time where there have been so many impressive breakthroughs in communication technology. I just don't think this particular technology is yet ready to do all we need it to do to adequately replace conventional teaching for large classes.

As already noted, some of my concerns might, over time, be obviated by improvements in technology and teaching techniques. And the extent to which they matter is likely to vary by the subject of the class, and perhaps even by the personality and skills of the professor and students in question. But, on balance, I believe we still have a long way to go before online instruction becomes a good substitute for conventional classrooms, at least when it comes to big classes trying to learn complicated subjects.

If, as seems possible, we are still doing online courses next semester, we will have a good opportunity to see if my assessment is too pessimistic. This is one subject on which I would be happy to be proven wrong.


NEXT: Zoombombing and the Law

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. OK, got a naive question from someone who hates public speaking period. Suppose one were to place all the audience heads in one picture, not as little square videos with different backgrounds and different ratios of heads-to-backgrounds, but smooshed together and normalize as to size, as a real audience would be, with one common undistracting background. Whether that would be clever algorithms to distinguish heads and background, or having everybody hang green paper behind them doesn’t matter.

    How much difference would that make?

    1. The main thing you need is the ability to read at leasta few or several faces as you would in a normal lecture. We’ve found that especially in larger classes that students are reluctant to turn on their cameras.
      You also need to consider whether the session should be recorded. In MA there is no problem in recording video. but audio recording requires permission of any one recorded.

      1. Don, Interesting. I did not know that MA wrinkle. I have been in stores that have prominent signs saying, in essence, “This company uses video for security reasons and for training purposes. Patronage of this facility grants us to use your likeness for the above purposes. These videos will not be given to any commercial or non-commercial business, other than for law-enforcement purposes.”

        I would assume a school could easily add a proviso: “This university/high school/etc uses distance learning as part of its curriculum, which involves video and audio taping of lectures. Enrollment in these classes constitutes that student’s permission for the school to use these videos for teaching purposes.”

        Would that get past the usual legal hurdles in your state?

        1. Our faculty has been advised to explicitly inform students about any recording that includes voice and to get permission in writing.

          Students do want the lectures recorded so that they can access them afterwards such as when studying for exams.

          1. I should note that as the moderator can control the microphone, s/he can turn off the recording when a question is asked. Of course s/he has to remember to restart the recording when the lecture continues.

            1. Oh God, no. I used to teach. I would *hate* a system where I had to remember to mute and unmute…almost impossible to faithfully keep track of that while also trying to engage seamlessly with one’s students.

              I’d rather get written permission from students the first day of class. Announce beforehand, “Unfortunately, any student who will not give permission cannot take this class, since, well . . . these lectures *will* be recorded.”, and then let unwilling students drop out right then. Much better alternative. A miserable process if you’re teaching a 100+ student large lecture. But, where you work, I guess a necessary one.

              1. That approach can be pretty hard (as in unfair ) to students who must take lower division courses as prerequisites to enrolling upper division courses for their major. Quite traditionally engineering students have extremely limited flexibility in their choice of courses if they wish to graduate in four years.

                An alternative approach is not to allow questions during the lecture, but to handle questions during the first several minutes or last several minutes when recording is off. Absent permmission from students the default is to edit out all questions/discussion before posting the recording.

  2. One general observation that our faculty has made is that one can probably cover only 70% of what you might cover in an in-person lecture. Moreover, the material will take you longer to prepare maybe 50% to 100% more depending on your lecture style.

  3. As I’ve done more teaching, I’ve become more convinced that researchers in the pedagogy of higher education are right: lectures don’t work for most students most of the time. The only people who don’t realize that are the faculty … who tended to thrive in the lecture environment. We’re also one of the few professions where the new hires are thrown into the thick of things with little to no preparation for their primary job, and expect them to “figure it out” in a few weeks.

    Those same researchers have also convinced me that moving from a synchronous, in-person format that doesn’t work to a synchronous, distance format is even less likely to help our students learn anything. Unsurprisingly, with a different course format, you need to try different tools and approaches. What seems most promising online are active learning techniques coupled with asynchronous delivery (pre-recorded mini-lectures, rich videos, etc) with “always on” interaction through blogs, discussion forums, email, video office hours, one-on-one video calls, etc. That’s what I’ve been trying in my courses … but, alas, it is too early for me to say whether my students are learning any better in my classes now than they were in the past.

    But just moving the synchronous lecture – or even Q&A – session to video conference? It’s a total loser.

    1. Moreover, we don’t want to do too good a job as that would undermine our business model.

  4. One key question – is it necessary to wear pants?

    Even if you have to get up for some reason (coffee or bathroom break), you can block the picture before rising from your seat, and unblock it once you sit down again.

    1. Eddy, if it is a big class, you probably want to tell people to disconnect their video as it uses a large amount of bandwidth thereby degrading quality of transmission.

  5. It strikes me that part of the issue may be attempting to make online teaching parallel classroom teaching. I don’t know that the tech is ubiquitously there yet, but one might have to tailor the message more to the medium, which is as noted pretty different from in-person.
    Interactive slides, like some online learning courses have, would help.
    Probably a bunch of other stuff that you can do computer-mediated that no one bothers in-person…automatic transcripts?

    1. Some in our department had already made EdX courses, which almost always include transcripts

  6. I’ve been co-teaching an Evidence class through Zoom since March 16. I’m an adjunct and this is my first time teaching this course. I have been teaching a much smaller class for about 15 years.
    The evidence class has close to 100 enrolled. (We are getting about 60 students per online class. We meet at 9 Eastern Time, so students who are farther west may be viewing the recordings. My co-teacher and mentor, has for years designated in advance four students per class to be called on. That has definitely led to good discussions and no one saying that they are unprepared.
    For Zoom teaching, we have everyone else turn off their video. That gives us a screen with 6 windows. The teaching seems to be about the same, with the advantage that I can actually associate the names and faces. The disadvantage, as you point out, is that I cannot read the room. In live teaching, I can tell when they are not getting it. Here it is unknown.
    Although we designate students to be ready to recite, other students can raise hands and join in the discussion. I sense that that is happening far less online. The number of after class questions seem less, but students are not shy about sending emails to follow up on issues. (Maybe since they need to pause to draft the email, we are getting fewer questions because in writing them, they are better able to solve the problem for themselves. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking.)

  7. I work for a software company and use GoToMeeting in a commercial setting for presale product demonstrations, product training, and post-sale support. Recently I have used G2m, webex, skype, zoom, Microsoft teams, team viewer, and google hangouts. I use G2M once or twice a day for one to two hour sessions. When dinosaurs roamed the earth, I did video conferencing with some earlier expensive production-quality stuff. Both domestic and international. I didn’t like it. Both audio and video were junk.

    I work in US eastern time and speak with clients world-wide – roughly one third US and two thirds India and five percent other places – Europe, Korea, Japan, Australia, etc. I do a 2-hour staff call to Israel via G2M every week. We don’t do any video of people – the necessary network quality is simply not available. We do screen sharing and audio. Seeing faces would be 10% better but it just doesn’t work.

    In the past I did numerous conference presentations. Like the author, I believe that no existing form of video conferencing is sufficient for such an application because you can’t see faces. I can imagine that something like virtual reality goggles might work. I’m thinking that a video of me giving a lecture while wearing such a git-up would be mildly entertaining. My wife says that I am always shouting.

    Regarding transcripts, they are for lectures or speeches, not for training. Maybe I need more control or rigor in my training sessions. Clients are paying for me to do this and they don’t like it when I lecture – they want interaction.

Please to post comments